Long before Michael Curtiz’s film The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Rossini tackled another episode in the contorted emotional world of England’s ‘Virgin’ Queen in Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra. It was the first of several operas he composed for Naples, and in which he reverted, to some extent, to the eighteenth-century form of opera seria. As in the best time-honoured traditions of that genre, he adapted some music he had composed for previous operas (including the Overture from Aureliano in Palmyra, which would later become famous as that for The Barber of Seville) and on the whole created a successful and cogent synthesis in his score (there is little recitative for instance) including the re-use of the frenetic section of the Overture in the ensemble which closes Act One.
Composed in 1815, it pre-dates Donizetti’s better-known operas on English and Scottish historical episodes (albeit all fictionalised to some degree) and in its theatrical juxtaposition of the public and private it looks ahead to the greater quasi-historical epics by Verdi. The problem for director and audiences, however, is that the libretto is notably undramatic, peopled by ciphers of the author’s imagination who utter little more than platitudes and commonplaces.
James Conway’s new production for English Touring Opera (which, this season, features operas about kings and queens) does not really overcome that obstacle, despite a surely knowing reference to one of the earlier and greatest opere serie> of all, Handel’s Giulio Cesare (mounted by ETO in its previous season) with the provocative presence of the severed head of Mary, Queen of Scots (mother of two of the drama’s protagonists, Matilde and Enrico) just as Cornelia and Sesto are confronted with the head of their respective husband and father, the defeated Pompey. That device serves as a haunting reminder of the political strife that has led to the conflicting desires of the characters at the centre of the narrative. But in practice, it is virtually as static as the libretto in that the head is revealed on a few occasions in a tabernacle that stands opposed to Elizabeth’s rather plain throne throughout the whole of Act One. It is curious that, despite his argument in the programme that the opera still, in some sense, presents ‘history’ (notwithstanding its fabrications and exaggerations), Conway’s production embodies no more historical, political, or cultural specificity than the libretto, other than the generally sixteenth-century costumes – though it is anybody’s guess as to why the male characters wear modern trousers and Chelsea boots. The plot could be any love-triangle among a group of political actors at just about any time or place. Some may welcome that the more or less blank slate of the opera is unsullied by the imposition of any Regietheater but it makes for a rather long and tedious two-and-a-half hours (excluding the interval) with very few ideas to ponder. Rossini’s music just about saves it.
The chorus does not entirely help matters either by standing stationary for large sections of both Acts without anything to do. For the first part of Act Two, the throne is shifted to the other side of the stage, counterpoised by a puny table, before revolving to become the shackle to which Leicester is chained in prison (in the opera’s original scenario, this would be the Tower of London) presumably implying that it is the impersonal exigencies and loyalties demanded of power that tie down and oppress the authentic feelings of the human-beings who have to skirt around it. That includes the Queen herself who is uncomfortably dwarfed by the throne as she assumes an apparently magnanimous and authoritative position on it again at the conclusion of the opera, having pardoned Leicester, Matilde, and Enrico, and vows to renounce romantic passion herself.
The fact of so well-known an Overture to this opera, requiring less attention than usual, might have been a gift to a director to present some suggestive dramaturgical motifs to be explored in the performance to follow. Instead the opportunity is missed and the curtain remains down until its coda when Norfolk is shown merely brooding – more in melancholy it seems, than in hatching the Iago-like scheming by which he tries to exploit Leicester’s secret love for Matilde (the daughter of Elizabeth’s enemy) against him on account of the Queen’s love for him. That sets off Norfolk’s vengeful jealousy as he resents the attentions given to Leicester by Queen and country following the campaign against Scotland.
Mary Plazas sings with reasonable authority as Elizabeth, but she is a touch squealy which undermines her control, and lacks the command necessary in such a part, first created by the great singer Isabella Colbran. There are strains of lyricism in Luciano Botelho’s sympathetic account of Leicester, but he becomes constricted in the higher, heroic register which Rossini calls for, particularly in his Act Two aria. John-Colyn Gyeantey’s performance takes some getting used to, as Norfolk, with its warbling effusiveness, arguably expressive of the character’s wily evil, though that is probably more coincidental than judged, but he settles down somewhat into a more conventional agility by Act Two.
Lucy Hall more convincingly inhabits the role of Matilde, alone amongst this cast in bringing her part to life as something approaching a well-rounded person, rather than a cardboard cut-out, demonstrating that something can be done with the wooden libretto. Emma Stannard and Joseph Doody offer efficient interpretations of the smaller roles of Enrico and Elizabeth’s secretary Guglielmo respectively.
John Andrews conducts a generally measured account of the score where the drama could be tighter and more urgent in places. But the colours of the music are well attended to, providing impetus and variety at that level, for example with some yearning strings; an authentically Rossinian accelerando with sul ponticello violins; crisp horns in several passages; and delectable flute and cor anglais accompaniment in Leicester’s aforementioned aria. The ETO Chorus is a little unfocussed at first, but achieves greater unanimity later, if not quite the threatening fickleness of a crowd that can be manipulated to revolt as necessary by cynical leaders like Norfolk.
It is always a pleasure to hear Rossini’s pristine vocal craftsmanship at first hand in the case of an operatic rarity such as this (surprisingly the work is thought never to have been toured by a professional company in the UK before, though it was staged at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket in 1818, shortly after its Neapolitan premiere). But this is an uncharacteristically limp effort by ETO to make the case for such a work, even if it is ultimately too stilted and unengaging to be worth salvaging for more widespread revival.
- Further performances to May 23 at various locations